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Platform strategy: How can media companies co-align their operations with incentives of social platforms

Introduction

Platform integration is a major issue for publishers. The question, as interpreted by some of them, takes the form: friend or foe? Although it would be naïve to answer “friend”, platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are not foes either. At minimum, they are necessary evil to cope with, at maximum they are strategic leverage. But somewhere along this axis the strategic response of media companies has to be, as readers and content consumers are spending the most of their online time in social platforms. Hence the need for a platform strategy – an issue this post touches upon.

“Remora’s curse” in action

Some time ago, Upworthy and a few other “new media companies” that base their business logic on identifying viral hits and recycling (or “curating”) content of not their own doing, experienced a noticeable decrease of traffic from the social media giant Facebook. In my dissertation, I’ve labelled this as Remora’s curse, a condition whereby a startup builds its house on “rented land”, essentially becoming dependent on the host platform in the attempt to solve the chicken-and-egg problem associated with user acquisition.

Countering Remora’s curse

However, Buzzfeed, although at surface a similar business than the other new media companies, was left intact in terms of traffic and visibility in Facebook. How come?

Here’s a perfect explanation by Jonah Peretti, the founder of Buzzfeed:

“BuzzFeed is very aligned with the interests of all the major social networks: 1) we are in this for the long term, 2) we continually invest in our content to make it better, 3) we do R&D on new formats and areas (lists, quizzes, explainers, mobile, video, breaking news, long form), and 4) we never game platforms with deceptive headlines, we never trick our readers, we put the reader first in all our decisions. The end result is that we are focused on making content that *readers* love and share and traffic growth on social platforms is only a secondary effect.”

Herein lies the answer: Buzzfeed was more compatible with the incentives of Facebook – especially in terms of providing “authentic” content as oppose to recycled “clickbaits”.

How should media companies approach social platforms?

I think Peretti’s answer encapsulates the perfect approach for any publisher devising their platform strategy.

First, you want to invest in the relationship with the platform. You do this by developing capabilities that are “native” in that platform, learning about that platform’s logic and rules as much as you can, and tailoring content (length, type, format) to it.

Second, you of course want to create engaging content because engaging content is what interests the platform as well (due to positive network effects). You don’t want to try and drive people from the platform to your site, but keep them within the platform enjoying your content (which you will monetize in other ways, such as in-stream ads or instant article integration). You learn through platform analytics (e.g., Facebook Insights) what content works and why.

Third, you want to experiment on the new features as soon as they roll out. This goes back to the first point — continuous investment on the platform. Only by so doing can you become a major player in that platform. You need to have journalists who are Facebook specialists at the same time, or at least willing to develop into such. With greater understanding comes the ability to quickly take advantage of new platform opportunities and enjoy the short but strong pioneer advantages associated with early movers.

Fourth, you don’t want to optimize for the platform but ultimately for the people. This means no “clickbaits” or recycling of others’ content. Instead, you want to create genuinely interesting (and useful) pieces of content which are your own original editorial content. Again, this requires investments in competence and capabilities in order for it to work. Your organizational structure and processes need to reflect online content production, so that you are able to create platform-specific content rapidly and run your production activities as a holy tandem of data-driven creativity.

Conclusion

Essentially, Peretti compares Facebook to a broadcaster that is interested in favoring content that keeps the “viewers” engaged. As a publisher, you want the same. The thing is, the platform won’t give you much “airtime” if you want to lure people away. Therefore, you need to share your best bits of content in the platform.

The author currently works as a researcher at the Turku School of Economics. His interests include digital marketing, startups, and platforms.

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